Passing the Pipe in Ethiopia—Page 2
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey


I had passed the opening round but within a minute I felt as though I was floating above everyone looking down at them. Apparently I had won them over because several of the women took me by the hand and ushered me into a small dark building where I discovered most of the men.

My Swirling Drum Circle
Seating me on a bench they began to place small glass cruets of amber liquid in front of me that turned out to be home brewed honey wine that they produce from local hives. Since I was already feeling no pain I downed one to the cheers of all present and was given another. The number of drinks I consumed was quickly lost in the fog of my mind and the next thing I recall was waking up at night in a hut with several small children urging me to my feet.

I staggered outside to see a large bonfire that seemed to be twirling in circles and realized I was still higher than the surrounding mountains with a sandpaper tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.

This time my appearance elicited a collective cheer from the gathered crowd. They ushered me into their midst and handed me a drum. Only then did I realize there were people in native garb dancing around the fire. I had been accepted. I was now not only part of the tribe but a central figure of the Guge Mountain Musical Ensemble.

I began to beat the drum in cadence with those around me and in my heightened state of awareness merged effortlessly into the soul of the music. Ego vanished as I gave myself to the moment and felt myself connected by an ancient thread that brought these people together through ceremony. I beat the drum with increasing fervor, creating a rhythm I had not before known myself capable of. Turning to both sides I saw sweaty ebony faces urging me on, driving me with their own immersion in the music. This was old Africa, the spear and loin cloth Africa that I had hoped still existed and now I was part of it.

I had previously participated in voodoo ceremonies in West Africa and knew that drums were the vehicle used to propel ones consciousness into an altered state. That is the mindset I now pursued.

For a few moments I felt an intuitive knowledge of this ancient way of life, as though I had left my own behind and been born again into theirs, and while I know it was most likely the smoke and drink, a part of me desperately wanted it to be a metaphysical breakthrough, a true path to an altered reality, the kind all true seekers wish for but rarely achieve.


The music was intoxicating, a combination of rhythmic drumming and people chanting a melodic theme over and over while dancers clad in leopard skins and carrying spears twirled and jumped over the central fire in a scene that might have been the same a thousand years ago. Dancers rushed at me with raised spears mimicking a hunt from their past while women trilled their tongues in high pitched sonics.

In my mind at least it was the perfect happening where all components came together be they artificially induced or not, but providing me with the kind of unique experience all travelers hope for.


After the Smoke and Drums Die Down
Sometime in the wee hours the fire and music began to diminish at the same time and one by one the people began to drift away, most of them coming to place a hand on my shoulder in local blessing. I sat there for some time, staring at the star filled night and marveling at the gift I had received.

By now I was shivering form the cold at altitude and made my way into a surprisingly warm and toasty hut, kept that way by the exhaled breath of the cows and goats these people share their homes with.

In the morning I was greeted by one and all with the word, "Am Baht", the Amharic word for "father" and spent the day surrounded by eager and happy people relating their oral histories.

I am not proud for getting high nor am I ashamed of it. I may very well have entered their world without doing so but I simply went with the flow and did what the Dorje wanted me to do. Besides, what is taboo in one culture may be a way of life for another.

Learning these differences is what travel is all about, and sometimes the rewards far outweigh the temporary cost.

James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 43 countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at

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Related stories:

Dancing With the Dead in Benin by James Michael Dorsey
Tracking the Hadzabe by Shelley Seale
The Warrior Scholar from Kenya by James Dorsey
Ethiopia: Birthplace of the Traveler—and Then Some by Bruce Northam

See other Africa travel stories from the archives

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